Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Travel blog #3 - Teens 4 Israel advocacy mission to NYC

For our Teens 4 Israel advocacy mission, I chose Teaneck for Shabbat.  The Teens were amazed at the Jewish activity that goes on their for Shabbat.  Even our Israeli Shelicha was impressed as she had never experienced a community with so many active Jewish people outside of Israel.Friday night we davened at congregation Keter Torah.  Physically, Keter Torah may be the most beautiful shul in North America anywhere outside of Omaha. 

Friday night dinner and the following program were incredible.  We had dinner at the home of Rabbi Steven Weil.  Rabbi Weil is the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.  under his leadership, the Orthodox Union brought almost 1,000 people to the last AIPAC convention, and it was OU synagogues and Rabbis that brought the largest synagogue delegations in the country.  I am proud to say that Beth Israel, the OU synagogue in Nebraska, along with its dynamic young Rabbi, this past year lead the largest ever delegation of Nebraska Jews to the AIPAC policy conference.  I hope that next year we are even bigger.

After dinner, Rabbi Weil's home filled up with about 50 Teens from the neighborhood.  They were introduced to our Omaha Teens 4 Israel group.  We heard from a local Teaneck resident named Mort Fridman.  Mort has been an active AIPAC lobbyist for almost 15 years and has developed strong relationships with Congressman and Senators all over the country.  In fact, Senator Ben Nelson was brought to Teaneck, NJ by Mort Fridman and had a parlor meeting about the US / Israel relationship in Rabbi Weil's dining room.

Mort first spoke about what AIPAC does to strengthen the US ? Israel relationship.  He asked the kids a few questions about what they know and I was very proud that Teens 4 Israel founder and president Kevin Adler's hand went up to answer every question. 

Mort told us some of his own experiences.  He says that he divides Congressmen and Senators into two groups, friends of Israel and potential friends of Israel.  Recently, he told us, in preparation for an upcoming vote on Iran sanctions he arranged a parlor meeting in Teaneck for a Congressman from Indiana, Dick Lugar, who was likely to vote against the sanctions.  Mort picked him up from the airport and had him as a captive audience in his car for the hour drive to Rabbi Weil's home.  Mort asked the congressman about how his family came form the country, knowing that the congressman had an interesting family history.  Then the Congressman asked Mort the same.  Mort told him how his father's family was wiped out in Europe during the Shoah.  He segued into a conversation about Iran and how the Jewish people have learned that when someone threatens to wipe out the Jews - we take them seriously.  The parlor meeting was a success and Rep Lugar ended up voting for the sanctions and bringing along 3 or 4 other votes as well.  The vote passed 100 - 0.  Without those rep Lugar the sanctions would probably have passed 96 - 4, but because the Senate voted unanimously, something very uncommon, the sanctions made front page news and brought more awareness to the need to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

Rabbi Weil then spoke about some other incredible AIPAC stories.  He spoke about a trip to Israel for Congressmen that included Senator Ben "Night Horse" Campbell from Colorado.  In addition to being a native American Chief, Sen. Campbell got the name "night Horse" because of his passion for riding Harley Davidson motorcycles. 
AIPAC made some preparations before his arrival, and when he stepped off the plane in tel Aviv he was greeted by the Israel Harley Davidson society, a group of American ex pats who brought their leather jackets and Harley Davidsons with them on Aliya.  At 4:00 am they took Sen Night Horse for the most spiritual ride of his life around the walls of the old city of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Weil then focused on the power of an individual.  He told a number of stories about how one person was able to make a difference, and ended with the story of Eddie Jacobson, the Jewish business man who had the connection with Harry Truman that may have influenced his decision to vote in favor of the Jewish state.  Rabbi Weil was passionate and engaging and all the kids, and the few adults, present came away inspired. 

After the event our teens got to stay out late socializing with the teens from Teaneck.

The next day we davened at the Keter Torah Teen Minyan - a minyan run completely by teens.  They do all the davening, all the leining, they give the sermon, they even organize the kiddush and other details necessary to run a shul.  Omaha's own Aaron Kurtzman was asked to lead Shacharit.  And our own Kevin Adler gave a short dvar Torah, thanked the Teaneck teens for hosting them, and invited all the Teaneck teens to come to Omaha to experience a real Beth Israel Shabbaton.  I think I may have been the proudest Rabbi ever.

We were invited to lunch at the home of Rabbi Baum, the Rabbi of Keter Torah.  In conjunction with some other Rabbis in Teaneck he lead one of the largest synagogue delegations of any place in the US to the AIPAC policy conference.  I think it was interesting for the kids to see the differences and similarities of being a Rabbi in Teaneck verses being a Rabbi in Omaha.

Seudat Shlishit was an amazing event!!!  We ate at the home of Rabbi Steve Burg, international director of NCSY and managing director of the Orthodox Union. 
Our guest speaker was Dr. Sharon Goldman, AIPAC's Northeast Region Political Director.
Dr. Goldman further educated the teens on the impact they can have through involvement with AIPAC. 
She told us an amazing story.  After the last election there were 89 new republic congressman, most if not all were in some way associated with the Tea Party movement.  Leading up to the freshman caucus, AIPAC's executive director, Howard Kohr, got a phone call from republican party leader John Boehner.  Boehner said that he feared that the freshman congressmen were going to draft a proposal to make major budget cuts, including cutting foreign aid to Israel. 
AIPAC's response was two fold.  First, Howard Kohr made it clear that the pro Israel community expected that the republican leadership would stand up to the freshman congressman and let them know that the republic leadership stands united in its commitment to foreign aid to Israel and demands that the freshmen do the same.  On a different front, it was Sharon Goldman job, along with the 7 other regional political coordinators around the country, to work on the freshmen. 
AIPAC begins building relationships with up and coming politicians long before they are elected to congress.  By the time a congressman is elected there is at least one AIPAC supporter who has been there for that congressman earlier in his career, whether it was helping to raise money, arrange parlor meetings, or just to help make connections and give good advice.  Often the relationships are so strong that these AIPAC supporters can call at any time of day and they will get the congressman on their personal phone.  And that is exactly what they did. 
The next morning at the breakfast served before the caucus, unofficially every congressman was talking about, "that phone call" that they got the night before from their friend in the pro Israel community.  When they put forth their proposal to the republicans, they had recommended cuts across the board - except on foreign aid to Israel. 

After Dr. Goldman we got to hear from Rabbi Steven Burg.  We happened to be joined by the teen who was elected the national leader of international NCSY.  He is from Cherry Hill NJ and was spending Shabbat with Rabbi Burg.  They spoke to us about different initiatives taht are being done in different NCSY chapters and our teens got some great ideas to implement in Omaha, and made some great contacts to partner with for future ideas and events.

After Shabbat we had an inspiring Havdalah and went bowling with some of the teens that we met over shabbat.  (I bowled a 157 - personal high!)

The next day we had a great surprise.  I had originally planned for us to see an exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum.  Unfortunately, because the problems with parking a van did not allow for enough time to do it. 
Instead, we went to the discovery Museum at Times square -right near the bus station - and we got to see the famous Dead Sea Scrolls!!!

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 in a cave near the dead sea.  They are over 2000 years old.  Text usually disintegrate, but the climate and conditions of the cave preserved these ancient scrolls and have taught us a great deal about how ancient Jews lived in the land of Israel thousands of years ago.  

I arranged for my close friend Sjimon Den Hollander to meet us.  Sjimon is a scholar and somewhat of an expert on the history of the region and of ancient texts.  He was a great tour guide and the teens really got the most our of this monumental exhibit.

It was the perfect way to end the trip.  These teens will never let someone get away with saying that the Jews just came to Israel in the 19th century.  With their own eyes they saw very real proof that Jews have been there from time immemorial. 

Over all the trip was a great success.  In the airport before we boarded our plane to Omaha I asked the the teens what their thoughts were now after the trip. 
One participant told me that before the trip she did not consider Israel advocacy something that was "her thing" but increasingly over the course of the trip she saw its importance and now she knows it is something that she wants to get involved in.
Many thanks to all of the generous donors who made this possible and to all the people who help make this a great experience.
I hope we have a chance to do something like this again, and I can't wait to see what great things these teens bring back to Omaha and to their college campuses in the future.

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